Story submitted by Barry Brill
The Washington Post’s recent story that New Zealand might admit climate refugees from Tuvalu has no basis in fact.
“Tuvalu has become the epicenter of a landmark refugee ruling that could mark the beginning of a wave of similar cases: On June 4, a family was granted residency by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal in New Zealand after claiming to be threatened by climate change in its home country, Tuvalu.”: [Washington Post (Rick Noack) Aug 7 2014 ]
There are two major problems with this report:
• climate change in Tuvalu played no role in the Tribunal’s decision
• Tuvalu residents are not being threatened by climate change
Sigeo Alesano left Tuvalu with his family in 2007. He over-stayed his New Zealand visitor permit and was declined a work permit in 2011. After his 2012 application for refugee status was dismissed, he appealed to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal whose decision ( NZIPT 501370-371) was handed down on 4 June 2014.
The appeal was based on humanitarian grounds. Mr Alesano did not want his family to be separated from his unwell mother and five sisters, all of whom reside in New Zealand with their families. Both his children were born in New Zealand.
A supplementary ground was that deporting Mr Alesano and his family to Tuvalu could put them “at risk of suffering the adverse impacts of overpopulation, climate change and socio-economic deprivation”. The appellant said that “land on both the lagoon and seaward sides of his home island was inundated with sea-water regularly during monthly king-tides”.
The Tribunal, in turn, was inundated by lawyers with papers and reports about floods of refugees expected from future climate change. As noted by the Washington Post, “the case was closely followed by immigration and environmental lawyers all over the world”.
The result of this gambit? A total damp squib.
The Tribunal neatly sidestepped with –
“ As for the climate change issue relied on so heavily, while the Tribunal accepts that exposure to the impacts of natural disasters can, in general terms, be a humanitarian circumstance, nevertheless, the evidence in appeals such as this must establish not simply the existence of a matter of broad humanitarian concern, but that there are exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian nature such that it would be unjust or unduly harsh to deport the particular appellant from New Zealand.
 It is not, however, necessary on the facts of this appeal to reach any conclusion on this issue in relation to any of the appellants as the Tribunal is satisfied that by reason of the other factors identified in this case, there are exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian [nature] and that it would be unjust or unduly harsh for the appellants to be deported from New Zealand.”
So much for “the landmark ruling”.
Even if Tuvalu climate effects had figured in the decision, the case would have provided a poor precedent for other countries. Mr Noack quotes Vernon Rive, an Auckland legal academic:
“I don’t see it as delivering any kind of ‘verdict’ on climate change…. The family only succeeded because it claimed “exceptional humanitarian grounds,” which is a wording recognized in New Zealand’s immigration legislation but not by many other governments.”
Mr Noack also cites a report of Norway’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre finding that low-income countries bear the major burden of disaster-related displacement. That report contends that the Oceania region saw 129,000 people displaced by natural disasters during 2008-12, but does not find a single case of displacement as a result of climate-change-induced sea level rise in Tuvalu – or in any other Pacific small island state.
Why did this obscure and distant non-event make headlines in Washington (and Toronto and elsewhere)? Clearly, the press is flailing desperately to resuscitate their much-loved disaster story which has long lost momentum with the public.
Tuvalu not drowning
If any future Immigration Tribunal does find it necessary to consider actual conditions in Tuvalu, they will discover that media-boosted fears of drowning islands are little more than fanciful. Just this month, ‘Science’ magazine reported:
“Paul Kench, a geomorphologist who now heads the University of Auckland’s School of Environment in New Zealand, was the first to question the dire forecasts for Kiribati and similar island nations. In 1999, the World Bank asked him to evaluate the economic costs of sea-level rise and climate change to Pacific island nations. Kench, who had been studying how atoll islands evolve over time, says he had assumed that a rising ocean would engulf the islands, which consist of sand perched on reefs. “That’s what everyone thought, and nobody questioned it,” he says. But when he scoured the literature, he could not find a single study to support that scenario.”
Kench found that higher waves raised island elevations by depositing sand produced from broken coral, coralline algae, mollusks, and foraminifera. Reefs can grow 10 to 15 millimeters a year—faster than IPCC projections of sea-level rise “As long as the reef is healthy and generates an abundant supply of sand, there’s no reason a reef island can’t grow and keep up,” Kench argues.
The ‘Science’ article says media images of washed-away villages on Pacific atolls are invariably caused by poor shoreline management. People encroach on active beaches, mine sand for construction, over-use the freshwater lenses, damage coral with dynamite-fishing, and erect poorly designed seawalls .
Kiribati’s President Tong is a vocal member of the Small Island States negotiating group in UN climate talks. In an interview with CNN in June he insisted that global warming meant “total annihilation” for his country as well as Tuvalu, the Maldives and other atolls. He announced that Kiribati had spent $8.7 million to buy 22 square kilometres of land in Fiji as a haven for its displaced citizens.
The purchase was “a publicity stunt” scoffs Teburoro Tito, a former President, noting that the steep Fijian land could accommodate only a few hundred people. It was reminiscent of an earlier propaganda effort when the Maldives held a cabinet meeting under water to dramatize their claims.
Ten years ago, Willis Eschenbach published fully-referenced observational data showing Tuvalu had experienced no acceleration of sea level rise since the high-quality SEAFRAME recording systems were installed by Australia in 1993. http://www.academia.edu/1097977/Tuvalu_not_experiencing_increased_sea_level_rise.
In 2010, Dr Vincent Gray described the SEAFRAME system and showed that no material sea level rise occurred in any of 12 Pacific islands (including Tuvalu) except during the course of cyclones or tsunamis. http://carbon-sense.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/sea-levels-gray.pdf
Drowning has not just been deferred as a result of the 17-year ‘hiatus’ in global warming. Satellite images confirm that the observed 15-cm global sea-level rise over the past half-century has had no discernible effect on atolls.